THE IRONY OF ROMANS 13

by
T.L. CARTER
Maidstone, Kent
Abstract
This article explores the possibility that Paul was using irony in his commenda-
tion of the state in Romans 13. It is proposed that the original audience of the
letter shared with Paul a common experience of oppression at the hands of the
authorities and were aware of the abuses that took place in the opening years of
Nero’s reign. The consequent implausibility of Paul’s language would have alerted
his readers to the presence of irony. They would have been able to set aside the
surface meaning of the discourse and to recognise that Paul was using the estab-
lished rhetorical technique of censuring with counterfeit praise. While the pas-
sage can be read as a straightforward injunction to submit to the authorities, an
ironic reading of the text results in a subversion of the very authorities it appears
to commend.
1. Introduction
In the opening verses of Rom. 13* Paul offers what at first sight
appears to be an uncompromising endorsement of political authority.
1
All authority is ordained by God, and as such should not be resisted
(13:1-2). Those who do good need have no fear of the authorities, for
they will be commended for their good deeds. However, the sword
wielded by those in authority is the instrument of God’s anger, inflicting
punishment on evildoers (13:3-4). The way to stay out of trouble and
keep a clear conscience is to submit to the authorities (13:5). One
should also pay taxes, since those who collect them are God’s servants
(13:6). In short, one should give all due tribute, tax, fear and honour
(13:7). Taken at face value, Paul’s words constitute what can be seen as
an embarrassingly unqualified endorsement of the political status quo.
2
* Earlier versions of this paper were read at a Baptist Ministers’ Study Group Good
Question, and the Paul Seminar at the British New Testament Conference. I am grate-
ful to members of both groups for their helpful comments.
1
Despite the arguments of Cullmann, there is little doubt that Paul has political
authority in view here; cf. O. Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (London: SCM,
1957) 95-114.
2
For a critique of the ways in which Rom. 13 has been used to stifle Christian
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2004 Novum Testamentum XLVI, 3
Also available online – www.brill.nl
Nov1069(DS)Carter_209-228 7/19/04 8:55 PM Page 209
opposition to political systems of domination and oppression, cf. N. Elliott, Liberating
Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1995)
3-24. Moo offers a brief overview of the different ways in which interpreters have
wrestled with the difficulties of this passage: D.J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 806-10.
3
Cf. R. Jewett, Dating Paul’s Life (London: SCM, 1979); J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul:
a Critical Life (Oxford: OUP, 1997) 332. Arguments for an earlier date are uncon-
vincing: against G. Lüdemann, Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology (London:
SCM, 1984); cf. J.D.G. Dunn, Romans (2 vols.; Dallas: Word, 1988) 1.xliii-xliv.
4
Tacitus, Annals 15.44.2-8.
5
Eusebius, HE II.25.5-8; Sulpicius Severus, Chronica 29.3.
6
Suetonius, de Vita Caesarum: Claudius 25.4.
7
Both Suetonius and Luke speak of Claudius expelling the Jews. While this could
be taken to mean that Claudius expelled the Jews to protect the Christians, this must
be deemed unlikely. Suetonius may not have differentiated between Jews and Christians;
Luke may simply have heard that “the Jews” had been expelled. An earlier, violent
There is an element of irony in these verses, since Paul’s words are
pregnant with a significance of which he was unaware. The emperor
at the time of writing was Nero, who came to power in AD 54, approx-
imately two years before the most likely date for Romans.
3
Yet within
ten years Nero, the very emperor whose authority Paul commended,
would unleash a terrible persecution against the church. When much
of Rome was destroyed by fire in AD 64, many suspected that Nero
was responsible, but he pinned the blame on the Christians, and an
immense number were thrown to the dogs, nailed to crosses, or set
alight as human torches to illuminate Nero’s gardens at night.
4
Tradition
has it that Paul himself was beheaded as part of this persecution.
5
Paul’s ignorance of the fate that he and his readers would suffer at
the hands of Nero lends an element of tragic irony to his claim that
the authorities are not to be feared, because they exist for the benefit
of his readers and all those who do good deeds (13:3-4). With the
benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to say that the apostle was mis-
guided in his optimistic assessment of the goodness of the state.
Yet even before the events of AD 64, one wonders how the origi-
nal audience of Paul’s letter would have reacted to Rom. 13:1-7. Even
if Nero’s reign got off to an exceptionally good start, it was only a
few years earlier that Claudius had “expelled the Jews for rioting at
the instigation of Chrestus.”
6
If, as is likely, “Chrestus” is a misspelling
for “Christ” and the riots took place as a result of the preaching of
the gospel, then there is every likelihood that Jewish Christians, and
possibly some Gentile Christians associated with them, suffered some
rough justice at the hands of the authorities on that occasion.
7
According
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expulsion took place in AD 19 (Tacitus, Annals 2.85; Suetonius, de Vita Caesarum: Tibe-
rius 36).
8
So J.S. Jeffers, Conflict at Rome: Social Order and Hierarchy in Early Christianity (Minneapolis:
Augsburg Fortress, 1991) 3-35; cf. P. Lampe, Die stadtrömischen Christen in den ersten bei-
den Jahrhunderten (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989) 53-123; J.J. Meggitt, Paul, Poverty and
Survival (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998). Priscilla and Aquila may have been relatively
well off, but they too suffered in Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews (Acts 18:2).
9
Cf. e.g. B.W. Winter, “Civil Litigation in Secular Corinth and the Church”, NTS
37 (1991) 559-72.
10
Jeffers, Conflict, 6.
11
Petronius, Satyricon 14.2.
to Acts 18:2, Paul met Prisca and Aquila in Corinth after the expul-
sion, so he would have been aware of what had taken place. One
wonders how those who had been evicted from their homes, with the
loss of property and business, would have responded to Paul’s state-
ment that those who do good need have no fear of the authorities.
In addition, it is likely that the believers in Rome were largely made
up of poor non-Latin citizens, who occupied no legal position and
were of uncertain official status.
8
These would scarcely be the kind of
people who would be able to live in the city in safety and security,
however much prosperity the upper echelons of society enjoyed. As
the most vulnerable members of society, they would have the great-
est need of protection from the authorities, but in that culture their
poverty would have rendered them easy targets for oppression, rather
than qualifying them for special support. The justice system was geared
to favour the wealthy and powerful, rather than the poor, who had
no influence.
9
If a poor man was beaten and robbed, he was person-
ally responsible for capturing and bringing his assailant to trial.
10
And
when he did so, the scales of justice were weighted against the poor,
as Petronius observes: “Of what avail are laws where money rules
alone and the poor suitor can never succeed? So a lawsuit is nothing
but a public auction, since the knightly juror who listens to the case
gives his vote as he is paid.”
11
Given the social context of Paul’s audi-
ence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his words might have
sounded either naïve or crass in the ears of those who were the vic-
tims of such oppression and injustice.
Yet a modern reader acquainted with Paul’s other letters may be
excused for wondering whether the apostle himself had not suffered
from a severe case of amnesia when he wrote that rulers are not a
terror to good conduct. What of the rulers of this age who crucified
the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8)? Jesus had suffered crucifixion at the
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12
Paul’s perspective on the outside world in Rom. 13 seems unusually positive when
compared with his other letters; cf. E. Adams, Constructing the World (Edinburgh: T&T
Clark, 2000), especially 204-7. Adams acknowledges that Paul’s view of the world else-
where is predominantly negative (241), but argues that Rom. 13 is part of Paul’s attempt
to construct a positive view of the world in this letter.
13
Cf. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992)
189-95.
14
Cf. M. Borg, “A New Context for Romans xiii”, NTS 19 (1972-3) 205-18.
15
Stein defends a surface reading of Rom. 13 on the basis that, when Paul wrote
the letter, the Roman government could be seen as a force for good: R.H. Stein, “The
Argument of Romans 13:1-7”, NovT 31 (1989) 325-43.
16
Cf. the discussion of “The Believer’s Obligation to the State”, in C.E.B. Cranfield,
Romans (2 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975-79) 2.651-73.
hands of the Roman authorities in Israel, even though he had done
no wrong. Paul himself had suffered numerous imprisonments and
countless floggings, not to mention being stoned (2 Cor. 11:23-25).
Some of these incidents may have been the result of ‘mob rule’, but
others would have been official punishments, meted out by those in
authority. Surely Paul’s own experience of injustice should have given
him pause before speaking so positively of the authorities? It may be
that subsequent readers of Romans have accepted without question
Luke’s portrait of Paul’s dealings with the authorities in Acts. Luke
tends to portray the authorities as sympathetic to Paul, and it is often
those in authority who defend the apostle against the violence of the
crowds. However, Luke may have portrayed the authorities in this
light as part of his apology for the Christian faith. Apart from Rom.
13, Paul has left his readers with no evidence of positive treatment at
the hands of the authorities.
12
As well as the question of Paul’s own experience of the authorities,
one also has to reckon with the theological context in which the apos-
tle himself wrote. As a Pharisee, he would hardly have been sympa-
thetic to the Romans.
13
Paul would have read Dan. 7 as a portrait of
Rome as the “fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly
strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces,
and stamping what was left with its feet” (7:7). Rome was the oppres-
sor and enemy of God’s people.
14
Why should Paul now portray the
Roman authorities in such a positive light? Was he completely beguiled
by the apparently peaceful start to Nero’s reign?
15
2. The Rhetoric of Irony
This article queries the consensus that the text should be under-
stood as an endorsement of the authorities
16
by suggesting that Paul
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17
Cf. W.C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (London: University of Chicago Press, 1974);
“The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Irony: Or, Why Don’t You Say What You Mean?”, in
D.M. Burks (ed.), Rhetoric, Philosophy and Literature: An Exploration ( West Lafayette: Purdue
University Press, 1978) 1-13.
18
According to Booth, the five crippling handicaps when it comes to discerning
irony are: ignorance, the inability to pay attention, prejudice, lack of practice and emo-
tional inadequacy (Rhetoric of Irony, 227).
19
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 8.6.55.
20
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 9.2.48-50; cf. Ps-Demetrius, Epistolary Types 20, in A.J.
Malherbe (ed.), Ancient Epistolary Theorists (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).
employs the rhetorical device of irony as a covert way of exposing and
subverting the oppressive authority structures of the Roman Empire.
When the straightforward meaning of a text is recognisably implausi-
ble or unacceptable, that is one of the signals that may alert the reader
or audience to the presence of irony.
17
A word may be used in a con-
text which renders unlikely or implausible the “dictionary definition”
of the term, so that its normal meaning is subverted, or even reversed.
Other signals for the presence of irony include the use of over- or
understatement, the presence of factual or logical errors, an inappro-
priate use of style, or the basing of conclusions on overtly spurious
reasoning. The consequent dissonance may lead the discerning reader
to adopt an ironic reading of the text which makes sense precisely by
virtue of its capacity to subvert the unacceptable surface meaning of
the discourse. Those who are not ‘in the know’, who miss the signals,
or who lack sufficient knowledge of the context in which the words
are spoken, may miss the irony, and instead be misled by taking the
words at face value and interpreting their meaning accordingly.
18
The use of irony in the latter part of the first century AD is spelt
out by Quintilian: “[it is] important to bear in mind not merely what
is said but about whom it is said, since what is said may in another
context be literally true. It is permissible to censure with counterfeited
praise and praise under a pretence of blame.”
19
According to Quintilian,
the use of irony involves saying the opposite of what one means, so
that the meaning conflicts with the language adopted. Irony may assume
the tone of command or concession. It may entail mock self-disparage-
ment, attributing to oneself the faults of one’s opponents, or alterna-
tively one may attribute to one’s opponents good qualities that they
do not actually possess; the latter technique is especially effective if the
ironist possesses those qualities which are apparently conceded to the
opponents.
20
Quintilian provides us with the assurance that irony was
a culturally appropriate way for Paul to communicate with his Roman
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21
J. Reumann, “St. Paul’s Use of Irony”, Lutheran Quarterly 7 (1955) 140-5; J. Jónsson,
Humour and Irony in the New Testament: Illuminated by Parallels in Talmud and Midrash
(Reykjavik: Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóds, 1965); A.B. Spencer, “The Wise Fool (and the
Foolish Wise): A Study of Irony in Paul”, NovT 23 (1981) 349-60; K.A. Plank, Paul
and the Irony of Affliction (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987); G. Holland, “Paul’s Use of Irony
as a Rhetorical Technique”, in S.E. Porter & T.H. Olbricht (eds.), The Rhetorical Analysis
of Scripture: Essays from the 1995 London Conference (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1997) 234-48.
22
M.D. Nanos, Irony in Galatians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).
23
Cf. L. Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge,
1994) 40-41.
24
According to Holland, irony divides an audience into four groups: 1. wolf con-
federates, who recognise the intended, ironic meaning and agree with it; 2. wolf vic-
tims, who recognise the intended meaning and disagree with it, agreeing instead with
the surface meaning; 3. sheep confederates, who do not recognise the ironic meaning,
but who would agree with it if it were pointed out to them, since they reject the sur-
face meaning of the text; 4. sheep victims, who do not recognise the irony and sim-
ply take the surface meaning of the discourse at face value (“Paul’s Use of Irony”,
236). If Paul did use irony in Rom 13, then for most of its history the church has
been a ‘sheep victim’ of this text. Since the Holocaust, there has been a growing num-
ber of ‘sheep confederates’; whether this article has the power to change ‘sheep con-
federates’ into ‘wolf confederates’, the reader must decide.
audience, who would have been aware of the ironic technique of blam-
ing by means of apparent praise.
Paul himself was no stranger to the use of irony: he clearly employs
this rhetorical device in the Corinthian correspondence, particularly in
1 Cor. 1-4 and 2 Cor. 10-13, where he engages in ironic, mock self-
disparagement.
21
More recently, Nanos has argued for the presence of
irony in Gal. 1:6-9, claiming that Paul uses irony when he refers to
the message of those influencing the Galatians as “good news”.
22
It
should occasion no surprise to unearth irony in these, the most polem-
ical of Paul’s letters, since irony is an ideal rhetorical weapon for attack-
ing one’s opponents.
23
However, since Romans is not an overtly polemical
letter, the question arises as to whether it is appropriate to look for
irony in Rom. 13 at all.
Rom. 13 can, of course, be read as a straightforward injunction to
submit to the governing authorities and pay taxes. That is how the
passage has been interpreted for centuries, and that is also how Paul
would have wanted the passage to be read by the authorities in ques-
tion, should his letter have come into their hands. The use of irony
sifts an audience into those who accept the surface meaning of the
discourse and those who perceive the hidden, ironic meaning.
24
When
a skilful ironist employs the technique of blame by apparent praise,
those in the know are able to recognise that the commendation is only
skin deep, while the victims of irony are inclined to accept the praise
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25
Cf. Booth, Rhetoric of Irony, 81.
26
Hutcheon argues that it is community that enables irony to happen: irony can-
not be understood unless it is embodied in a particular context of time and place,
immediate social location and general culture. Irony may be missed where the ironist
and the interpreter belong to different discursive communities which do not intersect
or overlap enough for the irony to be detected (Irony’s Edge, 89-101).
27
Booth, “Pleasures and Pitfalls”, 11.
at face value. This division is facilitated by the fact that it is most
difficult to detect irony when it is one’s own beliefs and characteris-
tics that are being subverted.
25
A surface reading of Rom. 13 is per-
fectly plausible to those who perceive political power as an instrument
of divine rule. Those who wield political power may be naturally pre-
disposed to accept this position, and the centuries-old alliance between
church and state has ensured the prevalence of this interpretation of
Rom. 13. This reading of the passage has been reinforced by the tra-
ditional view that Romans is a compendium of Christian doctrine,
which simply addresses the question of how believers should relate to
the power of the state in Rom. 13:1-7.
Yet the original audience of the letter would not have heard the
text in this way. If the letter’s original readers shared with the author
an experience of oppression at the hands of the authorities, that shared
experience would have paved the way for the readers’ understanding
of Paul’s use of irony,
26
by rendering the surface meaning of Paul’s
commendation of the authorities blatantly implausible to them. Whereas
irony has the capacity to blind one’s opponents to one’s true point of
view, it also has the capacity to forge a close bond between the iro-
nist and those members of the audience who perceive the irony.
27
If
Paul could rely on his readers to detect his irony, that would further
his aim of commending himself to the Roman church as the apostle
to the Gentiles. A surface reading of the text, on the other hand, leaves
the apostle making crass remarks that could not have failed to alien-
ate his audience, who had suffered at the hands of the very authori-
ties he was purporting to commend.
3. The Social Context of the Roman Congregations
If Paul was employing irony here, how could he rely on his read-
ers to detect it? The question is an important one, particularly since
the presence of irony has not generally been recognised in this pas-
sage. It is only when the text is set against the background of the
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28
Cf. Tacitus (Annals 13), Suetonius (De Vita Caesarum: Nero), and Dio Cassius (Roman
History 61).
29
J.-P. Rubiés, “Nero in Tacitus and Nero in Tacitism: the historian’s craft”, in
J. Elsner and J. Masters (eds.), Reflections of Nero: Culture, History and Representation (London:
Duckworth 1994) 29-47.
30
Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus 5.2.
31
Seneca, de Clementia 1.1; 2.1.
32
Plutarch, Otho 3.
33
Z. Yavetz, Plebs and Princeps (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969) 24, 115, 124; W. Jakob-
events that were taking place in Rome in the opening years of Nero’s
rule that the implausibility of Paul’s language becomes apparent. In
Rom. 14-16, Paul appears to display a depth of knowledge about the
Roman congregations, and if this is accepted there is no reason to
suppose that he was not also aware of events that were happening in
the city itself and their effects upon the believers: one may suppose
that whoever informed him of the situation in the church was also
aware of events in the city.
In that respect, Paul had a distinct advantage over modern readers
of Romans, who may not have read the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius
and Dio Cassius, which constitute our principle sources of information
on the events that were taking place in Rome in the mid-50’s AD.
28
Their accounts of Nero’s reign are not free from bias: all three authors
came from the upper classes, that stratum of society that Nero alien-
ated by his success in winning the popularity of the masses in the cap-
ital. All three therefore contrive to paint Nero in a poor light. Tacitus
was concerned to relate the corruption of the Roman aristocratic tradi-
tion under the principate, and thus he portrayed Nero, the last descend-
ant of Tiberius to reign, as the epitome of corruption and tyranny.
29
Suetonius and Dio Cassius subsequently developed the negative aspects
of Tacitus’ portrait. From other sources we know that the opening
years of Nero’s reign had much to commend them. Trajan described
the first five years of his reign as a golden age,
30
although this may
have been due to the influence that Seneca and Burrus exerted over
matters of government. Seneca praised Nero’s policy of clemency: when
asked to sign a death warrant, Nero expressed the wish that he had
never learned to write.
31
Plutarch provides evidence of his popularity
in his account of how Otho sought to win the favour of the people
by erecting a statue in Nero’s honour.
32
Nero courted the people by
displays of extravagant generosity and embarked on an ambitious build-
ing programme; his love of entertainments and shows, in which he
liked to take part himself, enhanced his popularity with the masses.
33
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Nov1069(DS)Carter_209-228 7/19/04 8:55 PM Page 216
Sonnabend, Untersuchungen zum Nero-Bild der Spätantike (Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann,
1990) 153-78.
34
Cf. M.T. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (London: B.T. Batsford, 1984) 37-39.
35
Cf. the one-sided assessment of the start of Nero’s reign, which disregards all neg-
ative reports of his behaviour before the assassination of Agrippina, in the Encyclopedia
Britannica (30 vols.; London: William Benton) 12.965; a similar line is taken in the arti-
cle on Nero in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: OUP, 1996) 1037-8.
36
Cf. T.E.J. Wiedemann, “Tiberius to Nero”, in A.K. Bowman, E. Champlin &
A. Lintott (eds.), Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge: CUP) 10.243-4.
During the quinquennium Neronis Nero provided five years of good gov-
ernment, when he enjoyed the favour, not just of the people, but of
the senate as well.
While Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius all acknowledge that this
period contrasted greatly with the emperor’s later descent into tyranny,
34
all three also concur in identifying serious shortcomings in the emperor’s
behaviour and character in this period. The temptation to dismiss such
details on the basis of their bias against the emperor
35
should be resisted.
The myth that the opening years of Nero’s rule were perfect may have
developed as a way of explaining why he initially enjoyed the support
of so many senators who later condemned him as a monster: the inter-
ests of the elite were thus served as much by the positive account of
the quinquennium Neronis as they were by the vilification of Nero in his
later years.
36
The negative features attributed to Nero in the opening
years of his reign should thus be granted due consideration. With this
in mind, it is now time to attempt a reading of Rom. 13:1-7 against
the background of events that were taking place in Rome at the approx-
imate time when the letter was written.
4. The Literary Context of Rom. 13:1-7
To set Rom. 13:1-7 in its literary context, the passage forms part
of the concluding paraenetic section of the letter. In 14:1-15:13, Paul
appears to address specific problems within the Roman church, and
in fact the letter as a whole can be explained in terms of Paul’s pas-
toral response to the tensions between the weak and the strong in the
Roman congregations. In Rom. 1-4, Paul seeks to establish the equal-
ity of the Jewish and Gentile congregations on the basis of faith in
Christ, and in Rom. 5-8 he argues that the ethnic boundary marker
of the law has been effectively replaced by the eschatological bound-
ary markers of baptism and the Spirit. Although that leaves ethnic
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37
Cf. T.L. Carter, Paul and the Power of Sin: Redefining ‘Beyond the Pale’ (Cambridge:
CUP, 2001) 147-72.
38
Cf. D.A. Black, “The Pauline Love Command: Structure, Style and Ethics in
Romans 12.9-21”, Filologia Neotestamentaria 1 (1989) 3-21.
39
E. Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (London: SCM, 1980) 352; O. Michel, Der
Brief an die Römer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978) 393-4.
40
Cf. J. Kallas, “Romans XIII 1-7: An Interpolation”, NTS 11 (1965) 365-74; J.C.
O’Neill, Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975) 207-14.
41
If, as is likely, Paul was aware of the persecution they suffered, that would account
for his addressing this aspect of the pastoral situation in Rome before he turns to
address the subject of internal relations in Rom. 14-15.
Israel outside those boundaries, Paul argues that God remains faithful
to his people, and that all Israel will yet be saved (Rom. 9-11).
37
Rom. 12-13 contains general paraenesis, which is bracketed by the
exhortations to adopt a distinctive lifestyle in relation to the present
age in Rom. 12:1-2 and 13:11-14; these paragraphs function as an
inclusio, suggesting that the intervening passage should be read as an
exhortation on how Christians should conduct themselves in an evil
age which is passing away. 12:3-8 portrays the church as the body of
Christ, and this is followed by a series of exhortations grouped under
the heading, “Let love be sincere” (12:9-13).
38
Catchword connection
appears to link 12:13b and 12:14a, as Paul moves from pursuing hos-
pitality (filojen¤an di≈kontew) to blessing one’s persecutors (eÈloge›te
toÁw di≈kontaw). 12:15-16 then appear to focus on internal relations
within the church again (does Paul have in mind the victims of per-
secution?), before Paul returns to relationships with outsiders in 12:17-21.
Because Rom. 13:1-7 lacks any eschatological qualification, these
verses have been identified as a foreign body in the letter,
39
and the
work of an interpolator has been suspected.
40
However, an ironic read-
ing of these verses locates them securely within the eschatological inclu-
sio of 12:1-2 and 13:11-14, which subverts the apparent commendation
of the authorities of 13:1-7: Paul only seems to grant the authorities an
unconditional status: in reality they belong to the present age of dark-
ness which is passing away. Furthermore, with reference to the imme-
diate context, the move from considering how one should respond to
one’s enemies outside the church (12:17-21) to how one should relate
to the authorities (13:1-7) is a natural one, if believers suffered at the
authorities’ hands.
41
An ironic reading of Rom. 13:1-7, which portrays
the authorities as enemies rather than as friends, provides a secure link
with the preceding paragraph.
At the end of the paragraph in question, catchword connection
appears to link 13:7, with its command to pay one’s debts (Ùfe¤lãw),
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42
Cf. B. Blumenfeld, The Political Paul: Justice, Democracy and Kingship in a Hellenistic
Framework ( JSNTS 210; Sheffield: Academic Press, 2001) 291-2, n. 273: “Paul’s deft-
ness of manipulating the system by working it against its self-negating proclivities is so
successful as to camouflage his own wit when castigating its representatives. Throughout
Romans 13:1-7 the irony is veiled (to incomprehension) as a political stereotype. ‘Fear
the governing officials’ may sound as an irreproachable advice to the authorities’ ear
but, these are, unbeknown to themselves, slaves to God as well (13:1) . . . Paul must
have laughed when writing, t“ tÚn fÒbon tÚn fÒbon.”
with the injunction to owe (Ùfe¤lete) no one anything except love in
13:8. Paul thus picks up the theme of love from 12:9-13, and his focus
moves away from relationships with outsiders and back to the need
for mutual love within the church. Paul seems to regard this as being
more important: the injunction to pay the debts of tax, revenue, respect
and honour to outsiders is relativised by the ensuing imperative to
have no debts to anyone except the debt of love to one’s neighbour,
by means of which the law is fulfilled.
Paul refers to the dawning of the day of the Lord, which heralds
the end of the age in which the believers live (12:1-2). Believers are
to put off the works of darkness, represented by such behaviour as
revelling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarrelling
and jealousy. Instead, they are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and
the armour of light, and live honourably as those who belong to the
new day that is dawning (13:11-14). If adopted, an ironic reading of
Rom. 13:1-7 would cohere well with the eschatological qualification
that brackets the passage in question.
5. Irony in Rom. 13:1-7
To turn to 13:1-7 itself, Paul’s opening injunction appears uncom-
promising enough: “Let every person be subject to the governing
authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those author-
ities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists
authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will
incur judgment” (13:1-2). Paul’s opening imperative focuses on the
need to submit to the authorities, for it is God who has appointed
them. There may well be an element of hidden irony in the reason
given for the required submission: the claim that the authorities have
been appointed by God subtly subverts their apparently absolute sta-
tus, since they cannot but be subject to the God who has appointed
them.
42
As Paul moves on to spell out the nature and purpose of that
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43
Dunn, Romans, 2.764.
44
One is reminded too of Jesus’ comment that, “among the Gentiles those whom
they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over
them” (Mark 10:42; cf. Matt. 20:25). If Jesus’ words and Wis. 6:3-4 are any reflection
of popular Jewish opinion of Gentile rulers, they render more unlikely the possibility
that Paul’s words would be accepted without question, at least by any Jewish Christian
readers in Rome.
45
Dio Cassius, History 27.17.1.
authority, the irony of his words begins to become more apparent:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish
to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good and you will
receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you
do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not
bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on
the wrongdoer” (13:3-4).
Wis. 6:4 has been cited as a reference supporting Paul’s view of the
authorities being instituted by God as his servants,
43
but its address to
the kings and judges of the earth actually subverts Paul’s meaning:
“For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sover-
eignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and enquire
into your plans. Because as servants (Íphr°tai) of his kingdom you did
not rule rightly, or keep the law, or walk according to the purpose of
God, he will come upon you terribly and swiftly, because severe judg-
ment falls on those in high places” (6:3-5). Since Wis. 6:4 refers to
Gentile rulers as servants of God who fail to do his bidding, the text
undermines, rather than supports a positive portrait of the authorities
as God’s servants in Rom. 13.
44
As far as Paul’s readers were concerned, Paul’s words would only
have credibility if the authorities recognizably acted as God’s servants
for their benefit, if those who lived upright lives were commended for
doing so and had no cause to fear those in authority. The expulsions
that took place under Claudius a few years before would suggest the
opposite, and according to Dio Cassius, the Jews in Rome were “often
repressed”.
45
Tacitus’ account of the exercise of authority in Puteoli
gives some insight into the way in which the Senate wielded political
power in Nero’s day:
Under the same consuls, audience was given to deputations from Puteoli, despatched
separately to the senate by the decurions and the populace, the former inveigh-
ing against the violence of the mob, the latter against the rapacity of the mag-
istrates and of the leading citizens in general. Lest the quarrels, which had reached
the point of stone-throwing and threats of arson, should end by provoking blood-
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46
Tacitus, Annals 13.49; translated by J. Jackson, Loeb Classical Library (5 vols.;
London: Heinemann) 5.85-87.
47
Cf. K. Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1987).
48
Cranfield, Romans, 2.667.
49
Tacitus, Annals 13.25 ( Jackson, Loeb 5.41-43). Cf. Suetonius, de Vita Caesarum: Nero
27; Dio Cassius, History 61.8.1. These events probably took place in 55 AD.
shed under arms, Gaius Cassius was chosen to apply the remedy. As the dis-
putants refused to tolerate his severity, the commission at his own request was
transferred to the brothers Scribonius; and these were given a praetorian cohort,
the terrors of which, together with a few executions, restored the town to concord.
46
Such was the nature of Roman “justice”: peace was imposed upon
the local population by means of intimidation and violence, and this
was by no means unusual.
47
As Cranfield points out, Paul’s words serve
as “a reminder that the government is possessed of military power and
so is in a position to quell resistance”.
48
Paul was right to say that
those in authority did not bear the sword in vain but, contrary to
Rom. 13:4, the innocent had as much to fear from the sword as the
wrongdoer.
Tacitus also records incidents in Rome when the use of the sword
by those in authority had nothing to do with the maintenance of law
and order:
The consulship of Quintus Volusius and Publius Scipio was marked by peace
abroad and by disgraceful excesses at home, where Nero—his identity dissem-
bled under the dress of a slave—ranged the streets, the brothels, and the wine
shops of the capital, with an escort whose duties were to snatch wares exhibited
for sale and to assault all persons they met, the victims having so little inkling
of the truth that he himself took his buffets with the rest and bore their imprints
on his face. Then, it became notorious that the depredator was Caesar; outrages
on men and women of rank increased; others, availing themselves of the license
once accorded, began with impunity, under the name of Nero, to perpetrate the
same excesses with their own gangs; and night passed as it might in a captured
town. Julius Montanus, a member of the senatorial order, though he had not yet
held office, met the emperor causally in the dark, and, because he repelled his
offered violence with spirit, then recognized his antagonist and asked for pardon,
was forced to suicide, the apology being construed as a reproach. Nero, how-
ever, less venturesome for the future, surrounded himself with soldiers and crowds
of gladiators, who were to stand aloof from incipient affrays of modest dimen-
sions and semi-private character: should the injured party behave with too much
energy, they threw their swords into the scale.
49
According to Goddard, stories of rulers who like to dress up as their
subjects are familiar enough in history, but such stories are always told
of popular kings who have a genuine concern for the welfare of their
people. Accordingly, Goddard argues that the violence in above account
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50
J. Goddard, “The Tyrant at Table”, in J. Elsner & J. Masters (eds.), Reflections of
Nero: Culture, History and Representation (London: Duckworth, 1994) 67-82.
51
Cf. T. Barton, “The Inventio of Nero: Suetonius”, in Elsner & Masters (eds.),
Reflections of Nero, 48-63.
52
Cf. Dio Cassius, History 61.8.5: “Everything that could conceivably happen was
noised abroad as having actually taken place.”
reflects the influence of the elite, who distorted accounts of Nero dress-
ing up as a commoner and mingling with his subjects, sharing their
pleasures and experiencing their lives.
50
But the account is not so eas-
ily dismissed. Whereas other accusations levelled against Nero may be
dismissed as stereotypes belonging to the standard rhetoric of defama-
tion, without any historical basis,
51
the fact that the above story is with-
out parallel in other accounts of monarchs is evidence in favour of its
historical authenticity, as is the specific identification of Julius Montanus
as the senator who attacked the emperor.
Yet even if such an event never actually took place, the circulation
of such ‘notorious’ stories would have sufficed for Paul’s commenda-
tion of the authorities to sound incongruous to his listeners.
52
If there
were a general perception that those in authority wielded the sword
indiscriminately against both innocent and guilty people, it is corre-
spondingly likely that Paul’s audience would have detected irony in
his portrait of those in power as the guardians of law and order. By
portraying the authorities as those who worked for the benefit of upright
citizens and who wielded the sword in order to punish evildoers, Paul
highlights the ways in which the authorities in Rome were actually
falling short of the ideal of good government that he portrayed.
Furthermore, if readers of Romans detected an oblique reference to
such events in Rom. 13:4, they would scarcely miss the echo of Nero’s
profligate behaviour in the works of darkness mentioned in 13:13. An
ironic reading of Rom. 13 peels back the surface meaning of the text
to reveal a sharp criticism of Nero’s excesses.
In 13:5, Paul reinforces the imperative of 13:1, but once again, the
basis on which the imperative is grounded is suspect: “Therefore one
must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of con-
science.” Fear of repercussions leads to an unquestioning obedience to
the state, but Paul’s mention of conscience introduces a new factor
into the equation. As Leenhardt astutely observes, “if obedience is a
matter of conscience, then it is no longer servile; when conscience is
introduced as the motive of obedience, the latter can no longer be
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53
F.J. Leenhardt, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Lutterworth, 1961) 335.
54
Cf. M. Thrall, “The Pauline Use of sune¤dhsiw”, NTS 14 (1967-8) 118-25.
55
J. Friedrich, W. Pöhlmann & P. Stuhlmacher, “Zur historischen Situation und
Intention von Röm 13,1-7”, ZTK 73 (1976) 153-9.
56
Indirect taxes were raised from the payment of customs duties at the ports and
frontiers and tolls at the gates of Rome; the collection of fees for the use of public
grazing lands was also farmed out to the publicani. Cf. D.W. Rathbone, “The Imperial
Finances”, in Bowman, Champlin & Lintott (eds.), Cambridge Ancient History, 10.309-323.
57
Tacitus, Annals 13.50 ( Jackson, Loeb, 5.89-91).
counted on!”
53
On the one hand, it is possible to keep a clear con-
science by submitting to the authorities and staying out of trouble, and
it is possible to read the text at that level alone. On the other hand
however, the last thing a totalitarian regime wants is a population with
a conscience: conscience gets in the way of unquestioning obedience;
conscience submits to the authority of God rather than of the state.
Paul has already indicated that the conscience will bear witness to peo-
ple’s conduct on the Day of Judgment, when the exposure of their
secret thoughts will serve to accuse or excuse them (Rom. 2:15-16). It
is possible that Paul introduces the concept of conscience at this point
precisely because it functions as an arbiter of right and wrong
54
that
is independent of the power of the state. People are not called to
unquestioning submission: believers are to follow their conscience.
In Rom. 13:6-7, Paul continues: “For the same reason you also pay
taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, rev-
enue to whom revenue is due, honour to whom honour is due.” In
1976, Friedrich, Pöhlmann and Stuhlmacher
55
drew on the writings of
Tacitus when they suggested that Rom. 13:6-7 should be interpreted
against the background of a revolt against hefty indirect taxation.
56
It
is suggested that, before that date, there would have been widespread
dissatisfaction with the levying of taxes, and that Paul responded to
the situation of unrest by counselling his readers to pay their taxes as
loyal citizens. According to Tacitus, the reaction against indirect tax-
ation took place in 58 AD:
57
In the same year, as a consequence of repeated demands from the public, which
complained of the exactions of the revenue farmers, Nero hesitated whether he
ought not to decree the abolition of all indirect taxation and present the reform
as the noblest of gifts to the human race. His impulse, however, after much pre-
liminary praise of his magnanimity, was checked by his older advisers, who pointed
out that the dissolution of the empire was certain if the revenues on which the
state subsisted were to be curtailed:—“For, the moment the duties on imports
were removed, the logical sequel would be a demand for the abrogation of all
+nr inoxv or nov.xs :¸ 223
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58
Tacitus, Annals 13.28; cf. also Suetonius, de Vita Caesarum: Nero 10.1.
59
Dio Cassius, History 61.5.5; cf. 61.5.3; Suetonius, de Vita Caesarum: Nero 30-32.
60
K.R. Bradley, Suetonius’ Life of Nero: An Historical Commentary (Brussels: Latomus,
1978) 185-90.
direct taxes. To a large extent, the collecting companies had been set up by the
consuls and plebeian tribunes while the liberty of the Roman nation was still in
all its vigour: later modifications had only been introduced in order that the
amount of income and the necessary expenditure should tally. At the same time,
a check ought certainly to be placed on the cupidity of the collectors; otherwise
a system which had been endured for years without a complaint might be brought
into ill odour by the new-fashioned harshnesses.”
Tacitus provides evidence that Nero had concerned himself with
unjust taxation before this event in his account of Obultronius Sabinus,
one of the officials of the exchequer, who was accused of stretching
his right of confiscation with merciless rigour against the poor. In
response the emperor transferred the charge of the public accounts
from the officials concerned to the commissioners.
58
Dio Cassius, on the other hand, identifies Nero as the one directly
responsible for the levying of excessive taxes at the very start of his
reign: “. . . he soon exhausted his funds in the imperial treasury, and
soon found himself in need of new revenues. Hence unusual taxes
were imposed, and the estates of those who possessed property were
pried into; some of the owners lost their possessions by violence and
others lost their lives as well.”
59
Dio Cassius implies that it was the
wealthy who were the victims of the unjust taxes opposed by Nero,
and his account may well reflect the prejudice of the ruling classes
against the emperor. The verdict of Bradley should be accepted, that
the emperor inherited a weak financial position, which worsened as
his reign progressed, and for which Nero was deemed responsible by
his biographers.
60
Insofar as the poor were affected by taxes, it is appropriate to accept
Tacitus’ account, which suggests that Nero attempted to alleviate the
burden of taxation suffered by the poor, since this corresponds well
with what is known of Nero’s desire to be popular with the masses,
and so is historically plausible. The responsibility for the unfair taxa-
tion system thus rested, not primarily with the emperor, but with those
who were responsible for collecting the taxes, whose rapacity was noto-
rious. This is the background against which Paul’s commendation of
paying taxes needs to be read.
It is the reputed dishonesty of Roman tax collectors that makes
Paul’s designation of them as leitourgo‹ yeoË all the more surprising.
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61
Cf. LXX Josh. 1:1 (A); 2 Kings 13:18; 3 Kings 10:5; 2 Chron. 9:4; Ecclus. 10:2;
3 Macc. 5:5. Only the last two LXX references carry a clear non-cultic sense.
62
Cf. K. Hess, “leitourg°v” in C. Brown (ed.), New International Dictionary of New
Testament Theology (4 vols.; Exeter: Paternoster) 3.551-3.
63
Cf. 2 Esdras 7:24; Neh. 10:39 (40); Ecclus. 7:30; Isa. 61:6; Heb. 8:2; in Isa. 61:6,
leitourgo‹ YeoË is used in parallel with flere›w Kur¤ou. A figurative cultic reference is
found in 4 Kings 4:43; 6:15; Ps. 102 (103):21; 103 (104):4; (Heb. 1:7). Paul himself
uses the word with clear cultic connotations in Rom. 15:16; Phil. 2:25 (cf. 4:18).
64
Dunn, Romans, 2.767.
65
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 9.2.48-50.
On the one hand it is apparent that the noun leitourgÒw could be
used of a “public servant” who discharged a service to the state.
61
If,
as is possible, such service was given free of charge,
62
then there is an
inescapable element of irony in Paul’s choice of this term to denote
tax collectors, who were notorious for lining their pockets at others’
expense. On the other hand, the phrase leitourgo‹ yeoË has inescapably
cultic overtones.
63
Citing Rom. 12:1, Dunn suggests that Paul’s use of
this phrase constitutes “a further reminder that the division between
sacred and secular has been broken down”.
64
It is certainly the case
that, if Paul had wanted to present the tax collectors as God’s serv-
ants, he could scarcely have found a stronger way of putting it.
Yet this would seem to be a clear case of Paul’s language straining
against the context in which it has been placed. Whereas the context
suggests that leitourgo¤ bears the normal secular meaning of “officials”,
the combination of words leitourgo‹ yeoË would normally bear the
cultic meaning, “God’s priests”, especially for readers familiar with the
LXX. Since that is such an inappropriate designation for the officials
in question, it not surprising that this translation is not generally
adopted. Yet may well be that Paul deliberately selected a cultic term
to denote the tax collectors in order to guide his readers to an ironic
interpretation of the passage: the lack of correspondence between the
language Paul employs and the reality to which it refers is intended
to signal the presence of irony. In this case, the designation of rapa-
cious tax collectors as “God’s priests” is a case of hyperbole: the use
of religious language to denote the activity of the tax collectors stretches
the meaning of the language to breaking point and highlights the way
in which the tax collectors fail to live up to the designation applied
to them. The discrepancy is intentional: God’s priests? Nothing could
have been further from the truth! Furthermore, as Quintilian observes,
irony is especially effective if one attributes to one’s opponents good
qualities that are missing in them, but present in the ironist.
65
Since
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66
Cf. J.C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (London: Yale
University Press, 1990) 96: “. . . subordinate groups have typically learned . . . to clothe
their resistance and defiance in ritualisms of subordination that serve both to disguise
their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the
consequences of a possible failure.” Paul’s use of irony here would come in the cate-
gory of what Scott terms “the infrapolitics of subordinate groups” (183-201).
Paul refers to himself in Rom. 15:16 as leitourgÚn XristoË, charged
with the priestly service of bringing the gospel of God to the Gentiles,
there is a strong possibility that he is contrasting his own genuine
priestly service of Christ with the “service” performed by the self-seek-
ing tax collectors. Towards the end of this paragraph, Paul’s irony
would have become more and more overt to his Roman audience.
When in 13:7, Paul goes on to command the payment of taxes and
revenue to those to whom it is due, and payment of respect and hon-
our to those to whom such qualities are due, the readers are left to
judge for themselves whether those commissioned with the task of col-
lecting taxes and revenue are also worthy of respect and honour.
6. Conclusion
When read against the social context of the original readers of Paul’s
letter, it is apparent that the way in which political power was exer-
cised in Rome would not have predisposed Paul’s readers simply to
accept what the apostle wrote at face value. The lack of correspon-
dence between his words and the reality to which they referred was
too great. This points in the direction of the rhetorical use of verbal
irony, where the tension between the words and the reality they denote
can be enough to reverse the plain meaning of the text. In Rom.
13:1-7, Paul’s commendation of the authorities is sufficiently overstated
for his readers to understand it as a covert exposure of the short-
comings of Roman rule: the apostle adopts the ironic policy of “blam-
ing through apparent praise”. The governing authorities may have
been appointed by God, but they were not fulfilling their divinely allot-
ted function. The reasons given for the required submission to the
authorities are thus seen to be spurious, and this also commends an
ironic reading of the paragraph.
By using the technique of irony, Paul was able to express his crit-
icism without fear of repercussions from the authorities, who may have
been oblivious to the disparity between the ideal he portrays and the
reality of their government.
66
Who could object to what Paul wrote,
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67
Having said that, it could be argued that the spurious reasoning offered to sup-
port the injunction to submit renders the injunction itself invalid. If the irony is pressed,
the exposé of the failures of the governing authorities could be taken as a call to refuse
to submit to their authority. That would, however, not have been a realistic option
for Paul’s readers.
especially as it is prefaced with such an uncompromising endorsement
of the political powers and commanded such unquestioning obedience?
Yet the literary context of Paul’s words betrays his true intention. Paul’s
command that every person be subject to the governing authorities
follows immediately after Rom. 12:20-21: “‘If your enemies are hun-
gry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for
by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be
overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The authorities had
no need of food and drink from the Christians in Rome, but sub-
mission to the authorities was one way of heaping burning coals on
their heads. To resort to rebellion or violent revolution would not only
have been futile: it would have entailed being overcome by evil, rather
than overcoming evil with good.
67
Paul’s ironic portrait of the politi-
cal authorities was an attempt to achieve the latter aim, using the pen
rather than the sword.
Of course, the text does not demand an ironic interpretation: it is
perfectly possible to continue to understand it, in accordance with com-
mon opinion, as a straightforward injunction to submit to the gov-
erning authorities. There is no trace of irony in 1 Pet. 2:13-17, and
if this passage was written under the influence of Rom. 13, it would
seem that the author was content to take Paul’s words at face value.
Equally, Rom. 13 has often been read as establishing a standard to
which all governing authorities should aspire. Any reader who lives
under a benevolent and just form of government and who finds that
reflected in Rom. 13 will almost certainly accept the surface meaning
of the text. Yet it must be asked whether it is likely that all the orig-
inal readers of Rom. 13 would have understood the passage in this
way. Would not the lack of congruence between Paul’s commenda-
tion of the authorities and the reality of what was actually taking place
in Rome have prompted an ironic interpretation of his words?
This article began with the observation that it is ironic that Paul
should have commended the very authorities that would shortly launch
a persecution in which he would lose his own life. If the above inter-
pretation of Rom. 13:1-7 is correct, that reading of those verses seri-
ously underestimates the apostle: he was well aware of the power of
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the state and the way in which it was generally abused. By the use
of irony, Paul was seeking to undermine and subvert the very struc-
tures he was appearing to endorse. In that case, perhaps the greatest
irony of Rom. 13 lies in the fact that Paul’s ironic meaning has gen-
erally been missed, with the result that Rom. 13 has been used to
support regimes every bit as corrupt and oppressive and hostile to
Christianity as the Roman Empire in the days of Nero. An element
of tragic irony thus remains an inescapable feature of this passage.
228 +.r. c.n+rn
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